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Season 15 | Episode 6

The War On Our Shore

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Balloon in hangar: A caption reads: "Overall photograph of Japanese balloon inflated with apparatus properly suspended." (Photo Credit: National Archives and Records Administration)

Two stories dating back nearly 70 years ago, when something happened that nobody seems to ever talk about it. This is an episode of mysterious balloons, cowboy sheriffs, and nazi prisoners of war living right next door.

Comments [31]

Bob cleary from NOLA

ReAd Richard Lawrence millers "Confisactions from Japanese Americans during WWII."

Intro paragraph: Internment was publicized as a national security measure responding to a military threat. Contemporary observers, however, wondered if internment was actually directed against an economic threat that some Americans saw in fellow Americans of Japanese descent. One half of employed Japanese-Americans on the West Coast were in agriculture. They were the largest force in California's fruit and vegetable markets; agricultural experts expected thirty-five percent of California's 1942 truck crops to come from Japanese-Americans.1 Japanese-American farms in 1940 were worth $72 million plus $6 million in equipment. Per acre their farms were worth $279.96, in contrast to the average value of $37.94 for all California farms.

Jul. 22 2017 10:37 AM
Bob cleary from NOLA

Your assumption that Germans POWs were treated better than interred Japanese American citizens because "they looked like us" ignores the story of a land grab: the huge forced transfer of wealth from the Japanese American families interred to white Californians who got that wealth for pennies on the dollar. German POWs had no assets to steal except their labor; issei and nisei Japanese families were forced to sell or abandon farmland, vineyards, real estates, businesses, with so little notice to white Californians that the assets were practically stolen.

Jul. 22 2017 10:21 AM
Scott from Illinois

A postscript to your story of the balloon bombs. Pastor Mitchell, whose family was killed by the Japanese balloon bomb, later remarried and became a missionary in Vietnam. His grandson was in a WWII high school history class I taught and he told me the story passed down by his family. While a missionary, Pastor Mitchell was taken one night by the communists in North Vietnam. He was never heard from again. His wife (second wife) is still alive and still hoping to learn the fate of her husband.

Jul. 19 2017 10:40 PM
Dave Ross from Midwest City,, OK

VERY DISAPPOINTING. Perhaps because I come from a military family, or perhaps it is because I am a history major graduate of the U. S. Air Force Academy, or perhaps it is because I am an African American I feel let down by your story about the German POWs. You forgot to mention that in the lovely Southern town, the German POWs were allowed to eat in restaurants in places where Black U.S. Soldiers were not allowed to. When that "military historian" claimed the treatment was not based on racist policies he neglected to address that fact. Also, why weren't German Americans or Italian American citizens interned? The ONLY case of American citizens committing sabotage against the US was in the case of white GERMANS.

I also take exception to the statement that the Germans,"looked like us". My family has been in this nation from the time before the was an United States. We have served in all of her wars, how dare you say you have to white to look like an American.

Jul. 18 2017 10:09 PM
Molly Anthony from Plano, TX

My grandmother (b. 1929) who lived in Brenham, TX would talk about the Nazi prisoners of war that she would work with in a factory and how tall, blond, blue-eyed and handsome they were. Apparently there was one who took a liking to her and would pass her little notes :) I remember as a teen when she told me about this I was stunned! I had no idea that we had Nazi's working here in our factories as prisoners!

Jul. 18 2017 05:10 PM

There's an example of one of these Fugo balloons on display at the Abruzzo Anderson International Balloon Museum in Albuquerque.

Also, it's been documented in several books that one such balloon landed on power lines near Hanford, Washington and interrupted power to the plutonium reactor making fission fuel for the Nagasaki bomb. This should have been included in the story.

Jul. 18 2017 03:01 PM
mkt42 from Portland, OR

Cora Conner told her story several times about being the telephone operator when the Japanese balloon exploded and killed the teenagers and the woman. But this is the only time that I've heard her tell the follow-up story of what happened later -- how she tried to help the Japanese-American mother and young son, but was held back by her own mother because the townspeople were stoning them. That episode clearly bothered Cora, for decades and probably for the rest of her life; in the interview she says she didn't tell that story for 40 years.

Jul. 18 2017 08:14 AM from india

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Jul. 18 2017 03:41 AM
eva from sf

Thank you to all the wonderful listeners who wrote in to point out the disparity in the treatment of Nazi POW's and non-white US soldiers.

For more info about how black soldiers specifically were unfairly treated after WWII by our gov't, please read Richard Rothstein's new book "The Color of Law" - quite revolutionary book.

I do want to point out that when we talk about German immigrants to the US, there was a great population of 19th-century political refugees from the failed insurrections of 1848. Many went to the midwest, where they immediately began military training on their own to defeat the South - these German refugees were fiercely abolitionist!

Separately I do remember news articles in San Francisco about the balloon bombs dating back to late 1980s, but the articles I read described them as possibly having carried bioweapons. They were found on beaches on the West Coast.

Jul. 17 2017 09:11 PM
Michael Esser from Los Angeles

Dear Radiolab people,

I hate to do this to you, because you produce such extraordinary radio features. But I have to say this: ZAUNGAST, the name of the P.O.V. newspaper of the Aliceville Camp you mentioned in your great piece, is not translated correctly with FENCED GUEST but it means ONLOOKER or SPECTATOR or LOOKER-ON.

Otherwise, I found your hour of stories about WWII just amazing. I am working on a TV series concept about Camp Beale in California, where about 6,000 German P.O.Vs were imprisoned. There is some evidence that the most fanatic Nazis among those P.O.Vs tried to get in contact with the Silver Shirts, a famed US fascist militia, and a Los Angeles businessman of German origins of the name Otto Murphy who financed the Silver Shirts generously. He also built the so called "Murphy Ranch" of which ruins can be visited to this dayin the Pacific Palisades, not too far from the "Villa Aurora" where the German emigres like Lion Feuchwanger, Bertolt Brecht, Thomas Mann and Fritz Lang met regularly. The Murphy Ranch was almost autonomous, had its own water and energy supply. Murphy planned to close the gates at a certain point and wait out until the Nazis would have taken over California.

Michael Esser

Jul. 17 2017 08:27 PM
Barbara Leigh Cooney from Honolulu

The story of the balloon bombs continues with gracious acts of reconciliation (which I used to teach to students in Japan). The balloons were constructed of washi paper, made by women in a rural village. In subsequent years, when the people of the village learned of their purpose and the fate of the children and the minister's wife, contacts were made and a delegation traveled to Oregon to apologize. I do hope the traumatized woman interviewed had an opportunity to meet the Japanese delegation...
Thank you for portraying the perspective of the American victims.

Jul. 17 2017 05:55 PM
Toni Ann Gossett from Dallas, Texas

My mother was enraged when the German prisoners, patients at her hospital overseas during WWII were better quartered and attended to before the wounded AMERICAN black soldiers. She was white, a 2nd lieutenant army nurse serving with the Third General Hospital out of NYC's Mt. Sinai Hospital. She risked court-martial by ignoring orders to treat the German prisoners before she treated black American wounded soldiers. Can't tell me racism wasn't woven into policies and procedures of government and the military during WWII. My mother saw it first hand and defied it, risking court-martial and dishonorable discharge doing so.

Jul. 17 2017 12:47 AM
David from Nassau county, NY

I was surprised that people at RadioLab were surprised about German POWs in America.

Certainly Robert Krulwich is old enough to remember "Summer of My German Soldier" either as a 1973 book or the 1978 American made-for-television drama.

I was sorry that Georg Gaertner/Dennis Whiles wasn't mentioned. (I found a copy of his book, "Hitler's Last Soldier in America", at a tag sale a few years ago.)

Jul. 16 2017 09:04 PM
Steve Widmayer from Tustin, California

A few years ago I was standing in line outside an icecream shop in Omaha, Nebraska. Attached to the building was a brass plaque describing the Japanese WW II Balloon bomb that struck the building.

See the following:

Jul. 16 2017 08:24 PM
Toni Ann Gossett from Dallas, Texas

My mother was enraged when the German prisoners, patients at her hospital overseas during WWII were better quartered and attended to before the wounded AMERICAN black soldiers. She was white, a 2nd lieutenant army nurse serving with the Third General Hospital out of NYC's Mt. Sinai Hospital. She risked court-martial by ignoring orders to treat the German prisoners before she treated black American wounded soldiers. Can't tell me racism wasn't woven into policies and procedures of government and the military during WWII. My mother saw it first hand and defied it, risking court-martial and dishonorable discharge doing so.

Jul. 16 2017 07:13 PM
Lynn Harrington from Oregon

We have hosted Japanese students since the 1980's our first student spent two school years with us and now he and his wife and 3 teen age sons come from Tokyo to visit us. Our two sons were 10 years older than our daughter, so we hosted 3 week student visits from Japan when our daughter was in her teenage years. One year I accompanied the group of Japanese girls on a field trip to Mt. Hood and I sat next to their guide from Japan. It turned out that he had served in WWII and we came to discussing the story you just reported. He was so shocked that I knew about these balloon bombs, as it is still kept secret according to him in Japan (my daughter is now 36, so this was long ago when she was a teen). I remember how shocked he was that these air balloon bombs, hoping to set fire to the NW forests to divert manpower from the war effort, was common knowledge here. It's interesting to hear you report this story again. I'm 68 and my father served during WWII in the European theater, serving with the Army Air Corp in England prior to D day and throughout Europe until Germany made peace. I doubt that younger generations know much about this episode or much about WWII.

Jul. 16 2017 06:51 PM
Maria W from Delaware

My father, a black man who was a teen-ager during WWII, remembers the German POWs in his Southern hometown. How could he forget them? He remembers seeing them eat in restaurants that he was not allowed to eat in. There he was - a young black kid supporting the war by growing vegetables in his Victory garden and by collecting scrap metal and by buying "war bonds." He walked by that restaurant and saw those German POWs sitting to a meal in a restaurant that he could not enter. To hear the hurt in his voice as he tells that story 70 years later is heartbreaking.

The story you told was incomplete. It shows a lack of full research on the issue. Even the historians interviewed missed that part of the story. I expect better from RadioLab.

Jul. 16 2017 02:48 PM
Tom Maynor from Buffalo, NY

Those interested in the balloon story may also be interested in this work of fiction that weaves many of the facts mentioned into an amazing story.

Jul. 16 2017 01:58 PM
Will Kelley

I have heard and read about the Japanese balloon bombs repeatedly for over 40 years; there is nothing new here and your sensationalist, 'X-Files' type coverage is completely unnecessary. Your hype is as overinflated as the Japanese assessment of the damage they would cause.

Nor is the discussion of racial disparities news, except among some denialists who keep trying to whitewash American history.

Since WWII ended over 70 years ago, the question is, what is your *point* in rehearsing these stories in this way?

Jul. 16 2017 01:41 PM
Lisa Rice from Rockville, MD

I appreciate the commenters honestly explaining that German soldiers were treated favorably because they were white. African American, Native American, and Japanese Americans were treated less favorably than these German soldiers. And for the historian who wants to negate the presence of racism, Japenese soldiers were treated less favorably than the German soldiers. Not only did we kill them rather than take them prisoner, we did not give them the type of freedoms German Prisoners of War received. Japenese POWs weren't allowed to go into the local pub and drink with the locals.

Jul. 16 2017 01:00 PM
Terri Reinhart from Wheat RIdge, CO

I am so glad you aired this story! I spent 5 years researching WW2 POW camps in the US, having been as surprised as most people are when they first hear about them. I was able to interview the daughter of a former German POW and I also interviewed Georg Gaertner (aka Dennis Whiles), a former POW who had successfully escaped and lived in the US, finally turning himself in in 1985. Escaping from the camps was rare and Georg was the one of the few, if not the only one who wasn't caught quickly.

How the German prisoners were treated differed from camp to camp. And yes, they had privileges that black men and Japanese man did not have. A German POW, if allowed into town for some reason, could walk into a restaurant or bar which a black or Japanese man would not be allowed to enter.

German soldiers were not members of the Nazi party, with the exception of a small number of elite soldiers (not all of the Afrika korps). German soldiers were not supposed to align themselves with any political party or ideology. Some, however, were hard core supporters of the Nazi party. They were in the minority and they caused all sorts of difficulties. Like any extremist, they could be quite violent towards fellow prisoners who didn't hold their extreme views or if they perceived a fellow prisoner was being friendly towards Americans. The Midwest was populated with German immigrants, many of whom still spoke German fluently. It would have been difficult not to have some sort of kinship between a German farmer and a German POW.

Jul. 16 2017 01:22 AM
George Newton from Livonia, Michigan

I had heard of a POW camp in Owosso, Michigan. The story I had read about it years ago when I would travel to a supplier/customer in the 80's said some of the prisoners would sneak out of camp and drink at the local pub. When they returned they would have to sneak back into the prison.

This Michigan story somewhat explained this type of activity, but it adds that the guards may have been there also. WOW!

I had also read of a farmer who was a POW and shipped from camp (Texas) to camp (Plains states) and finally went to Owosso. After the war he was transported back to Germany, but returned to Michigan to buy a farm raise a family and died in Michigan.

Jul. 15 2017 11:28 PM
Kristina Gray from Louisville, KY

The Japanese ballon story sounded so familiar but I couldn't think of how I would have heard of it, then I remembered the PBS show History Detectives that I saw some time ago. The episode was about someone who's grandfather was a WWII Veteran and left a crap of paper like material in a keepsake box stating that it was a Japanese Balloon. Sure enough, it was...

This is the first time I heard your show. It was good enough that I let my just bought carton of salted Carmel gelato melt as I sat in the car and listened to the end. Thanks, And I will be sure to time my grocery trips better in the future!

Jul. 15 2017 05:17 PM
Charlene Weidner from Palisade

250 German prisoners of war arrived via train to downtown Palisade and goose stepped to the former CCC Camp to help with the 1944 peach harvest. They worked for $ .80 per day and were supervised by US Army personnel. Other prisoners were housed at the former CCC Camp located near the Veterans Hospital in Grand Junction.

Jul. 15 2017 05:09 PM
Hans Arlton from Minneapolis, MN

I know the story well. My father was in Army intelligence during WW2 and told me. Later I bought a book on the subject, probably the only such book. I may no longer have it. The balloons were about 30 feet across. The bomb contained 10 lbs. of explosive, TNT or picric acid in a grooved metal housing, designed to fragment. Plan A was to launch balloons from subs along the West coast, but the subs were recalled to protect the Japanese navy.

Jul. 15 2017 04:53 PM
Rick Evans from 02368

I'm always amazed at hairsplitting racism deniers who use all kinds of rationalizations to try to explain obvious racially disparate treatment. I'm referring to the 'historian' who dismissed racism as a reason for disparate treatment of Japanese American citizens compare to Americans of German descent.

Prior to WW-II the nationalist pro-NAZI German American Bund marched openly in New York City waving pro-NAZI flags and professing support for the NAZIs. Can anyone point to such types of pro-Japan marches by Japanese Americans? I doubt it.

The German American Bund dissolved after the U.S. entry into WW-II with the members fading into just another white guy obscurity. No matter how 'American' a Japanese American citizen could sound they were still considered Japanese American

Sometimes a duck is just a duck.

Jul. 15 2017 04:15 PM
Susan from Cuyahoga Flls ohio

Upon re listening, you will hear them say they are 30 ft in diameter with 40 foot long ropes attached to the chandelier with the bombs and sand bags dangling

Jul. 15 2017 04:08 PM
Jami Gaither

How big are these balloons? I didn't hear any reference to their size and the photo had nothing to give perspective.

Jul. 15 2017 03:34 PM
Kevin D

You made there statement that there were no German POWs in Vermont.

Growing up in Vermont, I hate to do this to you but there were German POWs working on farms in Essex county, part of what has since come to be called the Northeast Kingdom. Mostly potato farms, but dairy and sheep. It was only a few hundred, but they were there. Now, what I don't know is where they were perminantly barracked, they may have been in northern New Hampshire and trucked in to work, but they were in Vermont.

Jul. 15 2017 02:49 PM
Laney Castors from NA

For a complete contextual US history of these two events see the below.

German prisoners of war Program in US
German prisoners of war were treated much better than the Black soldiers of the United States

Japanese Incendiary Bomb
One group was charged with dismantling — and, if necessary, battling the forest fires caused by — the incendiary balloon bombs: the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, known as the Triple Nickels or Triple Nickles. Like the Tuskegee Airmen and others, the Triple Nickles were pioneers in a severely segregated U.S. military.
"We were the first and only paratroopers of color in 1944

Jul. 15 2017 12:52 PM
Paul Ruffin from Midland Park, NJ

I graduated from Yale in 1977 and a college friend and roommate had an elderly uncle fought for Germany in WW2. He recalls that his uncle was captured by U.S. troops and imprisoned in Texas. He also said that some prisoners went on "work details" from which they never returned.

Great show today...but even though we live in New Jersey, I hiked extensively in the North Cascades (in Washington) when I was younger. I would like to take my family out there to hike again but the balloon bomb story gives me pause.

Love your show!

Jul. 15 2017 12:41 PM

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